Wednesday, June 07, 2017

`Turned Them Into Choruses of Prose'

“Nadezhda Mandelstam preserved the great poems of her husband in her head; for a long time her memory was the only surviving edition. As a result of living with those rhythms and images, so intimate and familiar, she developed her own new beautiful Russian prose style, unmatched in our time.”

Hardly a surprising passage if encountered in a study of Russian literature or Soviet history. Osip Mandelstam’s widow turned herself into the living library of his life’s work, and is revered as a secular (and very unsaintly) literary saint. Thirty years after his death in a Siberian transit camp, she wrote the memoirs Hope against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974) and became a great writer in her own right. Even in Max Hayward’s English translation, her style is Swiftian and pungent. The style is the woman. Read her account of how she learned of Mandelstam’s death, and taste the bitterness of her irony:
“I was sent a notice asking me to go to the post office at Nikita Gate. Here I was handed back the parcel I had sent to M. in the camp. `The addressee is dead,’ the young lady behind the counter informed me. It would be easy enough to establish the date on which the parcel was returned to me – it was the same day on which the newspapers published the long list of Government awards – the first ever – to Soviet writers.” Memory and its loss under Soviet rule, and the resulting sense of isolation in time and space, are recurrent themes in Mandelstam’s memoirs. “What is a man worth who has no memory?” she asks, and later: “We were cut off not only from the whole world, but also from our own past, from books, from thoughts, from everything.”

So, who wrote the passage at the top about Mandelstam’s devotion to her husband and his poems, and the effect it had on her writing? The author is Lawrence Lipking in “Johnson’s Beginnings,” collected in Domestick Privacies: Samuel Johnson and the Art of Biography (University Press of Kentucky, 1987), edited by David Wheeler. Lipking describes how, after Addison, “English prose awaited a new sort of master.” Immediately following the sentences quoted at the top, Lipking writes:

“Johnson’s fabulous memory may be said to have brought about a similar transformation. He carried the English poets of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in his head, and turned them into choruses of prose.”

Lipking’s observation is novel and bracing. Johnson’s memory was suffused with English poetry and prose, as Nadezhda Mandelstam’s was with her husband’s verses. To the 40,000 words in his Dictionary Johnson appended more than 114,000 quotations. Deep reading bolstered by a strong memory invigorates a writer’s words, as fertilizer stimulates plant growth. Johnson understood his impact on the language. In The Rambler #208, the last in that series of periodical essays, he writes:   

“I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. Something, perhaps, I have added to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence.”

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